NEW YORK – Ruth Asawa (1926–2013) was a skilled draftsperson who drew lines not on paper but in space. Although early on in her career she created drawings, paintings and collages, it was when she discovered wire as a medium that she truly stood out. Using wire in the way an artist might yield a pencil or brush, she created airy and transparent wire sculptures that were lyrical yet commanding with their bold contours.
Asawa’s biomorphic artworks were inspired by natural forms she observed: how spiders built and rebuilt their webs, the intricate detailing of an insect’s wings or the curving lines of a seashell. They are wonderfully abstract, however, and renowned not just for their beauty but the artist’s mastery of the medium.
Born in Norwalk, Calif., the Japanese American artist started her wire series in the late 1940s after studying with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College, where she was introduced to artmaking using everyday materials. She soon became “interested in the economy of a line, enclosing three-dimensional space,” according to the David Zwirner Gallery, which represents her estate.
The artist is also known for public commissions – a couple of her fountains are in San Francisco, where she was known as the fountain lady. San Francisco, where she lived for several decades until her death at age 87, remained close to her heart. She donated 15 of her sculptures to the city’s Fine Arts Museums, where she was a trustee, to commemorate the grand opening of the de Young Museum in 2005 after a redesign. The art was gifted for a permanent exhibition in the museum’s Education Tower so the works would be available to all. A year later, the museum presented “The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air,” said to be the most important retrospective on the artist.
Education is a major part of the artist’s legacy and the longtime arts advocate co-founded the Alvarado School Arts Workshop in 1968, working with children to introduce them to sculpture and art. She was also active with the California Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts and was heavily involved in opening a public arts high school in San Francisco in 1982. The school was later renamed in her honor.
Despite Asawa’s immense talent, her work was largely underappreciated outside her native California until the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis mounted the 2019 exhibition titled “Ruth Asawa: Life’s Work,” which included roughly 60 sculptural works as well as paintings, drawings and collages. This was the first major exhibition devoted to Asawa to be presented by a museum outside California. Today, her work is represented in several prominent museum collections across the United States, including the Guggenheim, Crystal Bridges and the Whitney. In August 2020, Asawa became the latest artist to be honored by U.S. Postal Service with a series of 10 stamps depicting her best-known artworks.
After years of flying under the art market’s radar, Asawa is recognized as the pioneering modernist sculptor that she was and her sculptures command strong prices.
Of all her hanging looped wire sculptures, it is arguably her multiple-lobed sculptures (usually ranging from four to six lobes) featuring layered and interwoven forms that draw the most attention. These inventive and pioneering experiments in wire sculpture are highly desirable among collectors. A circa 1973 six-lobed work achieved a high when it sold for $800,000 + the buyer’s premium at Keno Auctions in January 2015. Several other fine examples have sold in recent years, achieving prices in the mid six-figures. Her tied wire, branching form sculptures are also in high demand.
Big is not always better but a seven-lobed, two-part continuous form within a form sculpture from 1956, having two small spheres, certainly was when it handily achieved just over $1 million + the buyer’s premium at Los Angeles Modern Auctions in February 2014. “This incredible work is one of the largest Asawa sculptures to ever hit the auction block … Not only is it a custom, unique design, but it was born from a mutual bond between two sensitive artists,” said Peter Loughery, director of modern design and fine art at Los Angeles Modern Auctions, in a statement before the sale. The sculpture was the result of a collaboration between Asawa and dance studio owner June Christensen, who were friends from their days at Black Mountain College.
According to the artist’s website, Asawa said the uniqueness of her works lies in their lightness, transparency and their movement as they hung from the ceiling. “A continuous piece of wire, forms envelop inner forms, yet all forms are visible (transparent). The shadow will reveal an exact image of the object,” she wrote.